Since it first came courting, television has been sport's welcome guest. Now it appears that sport is ready to invite its well-heeled suitor all the way into the bedroom. The first serious sign of a willingness to let TV operate as an associate on the playing field rather than merely as an observer in the stands came late last summer when Howard Cosell of ABC carried on a running sideline commentary with Fran Tarkenton of the Giants during a game. Some months later, Jack Twyman, also of ABC, sat on the Baltimore Bullet bench while a playoff game was going on, chatting with the injured Gus Johnson. Finally, last month Tony Kubek of NBC paraded out to the bullpen in Fenway Park—interrupting the game as he cut across the outfield—to hold a t√™te-à-t√™te with the Oriole relievers.
Following each of these history-making (or at least precedent-setting) incidents, the working sportswriters hollered foul and demanded an end to such corrupt practices, or better yet a chance to get in on the corruption themselves. The result was that a Boston writer was permitted to conduct interviews in the bullpen during the week after Kubek's visit. In both cases, Father Baseball seems to have survived intact.
In fact, most of the people seriously upset about these intrusions of TV are newspapermen. Players and officials have voiced few complaints, and the interviews themselves are a bonanza for the fans. But many writers are convinced that the Integrity of the Game is threatened. The trouble is, newspapermen—and, sure, some magazine men, too—are curiously selective about what menaces sport's integrity. When TV breaks new ground, it is malign. When a colleague in print pulls something off, it is a scoop.
Whereas Cosell was scorned for merely interviewing a noncompeting player on TV during an exhibition game, nobody got rabid over George Plimpton's suiting up and playing in a Detroit Lions intrasquad exhibition game for Paper Lion. (That's nothing; plans are afoot for him to run off four plays in a Baltimore Detroit exhibition this summer for a TV special.) And while the Boston writers cried havoc over Kubek's exclusive, they were uncommonly quiet a few years ago when a single Boston newspaper assigned Bill Russell to provide first-person analyses of an NBA playoff series—even when it resulted in his total silence around other members of the press. The fact is, the sale of certain coverage rights is not inconsistent with a free press. Tony Kubek chatting in the bullpen does not trample on the privileges of any other member of the profession. It might even help open a door through which all may follow.
June 27, 1971
If so, such activities can only strengthen the newspaper's role. By adding new dimension to the drama of the action, they provide new opportunities for coverage. Television has freed sportswriters from the need to give strict play-by-play accounts. Writers have been permitted—in some cases forced—to move deeper into the game, interviewing and analyzing. In the same way, the interviews TV might carry during a game would add depth and perspective to what is said and written afterward.
The issue is not completely clear-cut, of course, nor is it split along strictly TV-vs.-print lines. "What worries me is the damage to the illusion," says Bob Wolff, the New York cable-TV sports voice. "Everyone will become part performer, and it would not take long for games to seem staged. Where does it stop? Can't you see the day when the pitcher and batter are rigged with mikes so they can discuss each pitch just before it is thrown? Or a guy making the team because they need someone articulate in the bullpen?"
A rather more moderate—but generally critical—view is expressed by Bud Collins, who regularly works both sides of the media fence. Collins, a columnist on The Boston Globe, is accepted as a preeminent tennis writer as well as the sport's leading announcer. No, he doesn't feel his rights were infringed by a coup like Kubek's. "But I don't think we have any business down there on the field—writers or announcers. We are out of place." He adds an interesting analogy that may or may not be strictly analogous. "On the other hand, if they can go out to a battleground and film guys taking their dying breaths with microphones rigged and pointed in such a way that you can see which network the guy is dying on," Collins asks, "then what's so sacrosanct about a bullpen?"
The remark is not flippant, despite the obvious distinctions between war and sport. Warfare, an anarchistic situation, is scarcely disrupted by the presence of a television camera. But sports are structured and precise functions, and an intruder like TV can affect the outcome. Since no one has demonstrated that this happens, however, the more pertinent question is whether TV's presence automatically makes an event artificial and staged. Not necessarily. If something is stagy to begin with—the Academy Awards, a press conference or most sports announcing—TV will accentuate its artificiality. But likewise, if something is for real—death in Vietnam or violence in pro football's "pit"—what is genuine will be magnified. The adventures that Cosell, Twyman and Kubek have undertaken are the sort that can only benefit sport and enhance our appreciation of games and the men who play them.